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Sharon Wins Vote For Gaza Pullout

Israeli Parliament Is Bitterly Divided; Likud Ministers Demand Referendum

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 27, 2004; Page A01

JERUSALEM, Oct. 26 -- Israel's parliament voted Tuesday night to close all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, evacuate their 8,100 residents and withdraw thousands of Israeli troops that protect them, handing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a major political victory on an issue that has created a deep rupture in Israeli politics and society.

Sharon's Gaza disengagement plan was approved by a 67 to 45 vote in the 120-member parliament, or Knesset, even though almost half the members of his Likud Party and most of his traditional allies in ultranationalist and religious parties abandoned him. Sharon was supported instead by longtime opponents in more dovish parties who historically have viewed him as their archenemy. Seven lawmakers abstained, and one was absent.

Orthodox Jews who oppose the pullout plan protest outside the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem. (Goran Tomasevic -- Reuters)

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Video: The Israeli Parliament is divided following its vote on Prime Minister Sharon's Gaza withdrawl plan.

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Immediately after the vote, however, four cabinet ministers from Likud, including Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, announced that they would resign from the government within two weeks if Sharon did not agree to subject his plan to a nationwide referendum. In addition, Sharon fired one Likud cabinet minister, Uzi Landau, and a deputy minister for voting against the proposal.

The vote moved Israel a step closer to what would be its first withdrawal from Jewish settlements since 1982, when settlers were pulled out of the Sinai Peninsula under the Camp David peace accords with Egypt. Israel has never vacated a settlement in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank, which many religious Jews say would be an abandonment of the Jewish homeland. Thousands of settlers protested outside the Knesset building Tuesday, many branding Sharon a traitor.

Yet many Israelis described Tuesday's vote as a milestone, with Sharon forcing the country to reconcile its need for peace and security with its 37-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

"This is the most dramatic, head-on confrontation in years between ideology and reality, between the messianic ideology of the Israeli right and the pragmatic considerations of the state of Israel in its relations with the Palestinians," said Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The vote, which was widely predicted, followed 17 hours of acrimonious debate on the floor of the Knesset punctuated by name-calling and heckling. Three members were evicted during Sharon's opening speech Monday for refusing to remain silent.

Sharon's plan, which was crafted without Palestinian input, must still clear several legislative hurdles. But if it is implemented, settlers would begin leaving all 21 Gaza settlements and four small settlements in the northern West Bank early next summer. Homes and synagogues would be destroyed; infrastructure would be turned over to a third party rather than handed directly to the Palestinian Authority. Compensation packages ranging from about $100,000 to $500,000 have been approved for uprooted families.

Israeli troops would pull out from most of Gaza by the end of 2005, but the Israeli military would retain control of Gaza's borders, coastline and airspace.

Ultra-Orthodox rabbis have called on soldiers to disobey orders to evacuate settlements while political leaders have warned that such evacuations could take Israel to the brink of civil war. Israeli security officials say Sharon has been the target of death threats.

Senior politicians and leading political analysts say Tuesday's vote could split Likud -- the Knesset's largest party with 40 seats -- and cause the government to collapse or force Sharon to call early elections.

Many lawmakers on opposing sides of the issue favor subjecting the plan to a binding, nationwide referendum, and negotiations continued Tuesday night to persuade Sharon to accept the idea. Even though public opinion polls show that about two-thirds of Israelis support withdrawal from Gaza, Sharon has said he opposes a referendum, describing it as a legalistic stall tactic intended to kill the measure. But Likud activists and political analysts say he may have to accept such a vote to prevent his minority government from collapsing.

That seemed to be the threat implicit in Netanyahu's warning that he, Education Minister Limor Livnat, Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz and Health Minister Danny Naveh -- all of whom voted Tuesday night in favor of the Gaza withdrawal -- would quit the cabinet in two weeks if Sharon did not agree to a referendum. Likud members voted against the plan this year in a party-wide referendum, and the Likud Central Committee rejected it at a party convention in August.

"We are giving them a two-week chance, and if not, we can't remain in the government," Netanyahu, a former prime minister, told reporters outside the Knesset chamber.

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